On Goodness

On Goodness

In the 1970s, a NASA administrator said the Space Shuttle could be built “faster, better and cheaper.” But a few years later he said that in reality, you could only have two of the three: faster and better, but not cheaper; faster and cheaper, but not better; better and cheaper, but not faster. So, imagine you could only have two of the three from the following list:
  1. Feeling good.
  2. Doing good.
  3. Being good.
Your first response might be “this is a false choice! I can have all three!” Well perhaps. But if you had to choose two, which would they be?
Your answer would depend in a great part on the meaning of the word “good.” If you were to look up “good” in the dictionary, you would see that there are many, many definitions of good. Its use is casual and ubiquitous: moral judgments (“a good person”), attractiveness (“good looks”), helpfulness (“it’s good for you”) and so on. What all the definitions have in common is positivity, as opposed to the negativity of “bad.”
But this duality is not purely black and white. People taking addicting drugs recreationally say it makes them “feel good.” Can doing a destructive, “bad” thing really be good? An adulterous affair might make someone feel good, but is it actually good?
And what about doing good? We use the term “do-gooder” as a pejorative. Another aphorism says “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Is something truly a good action when the motives behind it are questionable, or self-serving? John Wesley claimed that good could only truly be good if guided by God:
All outward means of grace, if separate from the spirit of God, cannot profit, or conduce, in any degree, either to the knowledge or love of God. All outward things, unless he works in them and by them, are in vain.
In other words, Good is not good without God. And this brings us to our final choice, “being good.”
In the parable of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19, also Luke 18), a man comes to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus replies, “‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” God is the keeper and definer of goodness: God is goodness. Without God, there is no good. Any genuine good that we do, or feel, is as a reflection of God’s goodness. In the parable, Jesus tells the man to be an obedient Jew and follow the ten commandments. Do the good that God has defined (or don’t do the bad that God has defined) and you will be in harmony with God, and your actions and feelings will be good.
For Christ followers, the concept of good extends beyond obedience to the ten commandments. By being justified in Christ – coming into the complete belief that Christ is the Son of God – goodness becomes intrinsic. It is a part of the imbued nature of the Holy Spirit. With our free will we can still deny this goodness – and we often do – but we nevertheless retain access to this inexhaustible pool of goodness. And because of the pure source of this pool, we can do good even if it doesn’t feel good. Perhaps more importantly, we can do good (like uphold a distinct Biblical moral value) even if it makes others feel bad.
Our goodness, therefore, is not and can not be self-willed. Some (Richard Dawkins comes to mind) have intimated that people without God can be good simply because it is advantageous for them – it makes the wheels of society turn more smoothy, for example. As we have seen, this is a very shallow definition of good, as well as a shallow examination of western culture, in which most atheists who “do good” are simply imitating the morals and ethics of a Christian society without giving God any credit! In truth, much of western culture’s “goodness” has eroded as we have grown more convinced of a self-willed, God-less, life.
Well, I guess my original question is sort of a trick question after all, and you could have any combination of the three as long as God encompasses all three definitions. But none of the three can be considered a goal. Instead, they are a result, a fruit of the spirit, that arises when the Holy Spirit works unfettered within our hearts and souls. It’s the “unfettered” part that trips up most of us as we fetter ourselves, and our goodness, with ideas of a supreme self rather than a supreme deity.

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